HE WAS a dashing and desperate driver who flirted with death on the track. Now, he clings to a cruel, bed-ridden life after a terrible skiing accident. PETER COSTER reports:
IT IS MORE than three-and-a-half years since Michael Schumacher nearly lost his life, not on a Formula One circuit, but while skiing with friends and his 14-year-old son in the Swiss Alps.
Last week in Sporthounds, I wrote about the relentless and ruthless driving style of the German megastar, particularly in the last race of the 1994 season, which brought him his first world championship.
Like the crowd in Adelaide, who saw it endlessly repeated on television, I was shocked when Schumacher ran off the track and then drove back to damage Damon Hill’s Williams, putting him out of the race.
Nor could Schumacher continue, but he was a point ahead of Hill in the race for the championship and had enough points to finish the year ahead of the other drivers.
Today, the seven-time world F1 champion is still confined to a bed in his mansion on the shores of Lake Geneva.
It may be that he will never leave although a glimmer of hope was raised last month when Luca Di Montezemolo, the former Ferrari president, told one of Italy’s major daily sports newspapers, Corriere Dello Sport: “As I know his strength, I dream that he will soon be among us again.”
There was nothing more. Schumacher’s family is suing a German magazine that said the former F1 champion was able to stand and walk.
Schumacher’s wife, Corinna, denied the report and pleaded for privacy, asking reporters and TV crews to cease their vigil outside the home where Schumacher is being cared for in a specially-installed medical facility and attended by doctors and therapists.
The family once recorded that there had been “moments of consciousness and awakening”, but that was three years ago and there has been little since.
The accident that caused Schumacher to be put into a medically-induced coma for at least six months, to relieve pressure on his brain while he underwent surgery, happened only eight metres from the ski run. Schumacher was “off-piste” when he fell and hit his head on a rock.
Ironically, speed ” did not appear to be an important factor” in the accident, according to an investigation.
Last week. I wrote that Schumacher said he could to nothing to prevent his Benneton from going back across the track and into the side of Hill’s Williams at Adelaide. It was beyond his control, he said. Others were not of the same view and said he did it deliberately.
Former Australian triple world champion, Sir Jack Brabham, commented that it was “the only thing he could have done”.
What Brabham meant was that it was the only thing Schumacher could do to stop Hill from winning the world championship.
To drive home the point, as it were, it was not to be the only time that something similar to this win-at-all-costs approach was used by Schumacher. I met him in his early days as a Grand Prix driver and was impressed by his apparent professionalism and what seem to be an easy-going manner.
Underneath there was a steely resolve and an unquenchable thirst for victory. Life in the fast lane had not always be easy for “Schuey”. His father was a bricklayer who saw his son’s interest in car racing when he was only four. He fitted a motorcycle engine to his son’s pedal car.
The young Schuey quickly progressed through karting ranks and junior open-wheelers, always needing to win to attract patrons and sponsorship.
Schumacher was never easy to pass. If you tried to pass Schumacher, he would make you earn it, to the extent that you might find yourself flying off the track.
Three years after the Adelaide race when he turned into Hill, Schumacher was fighting for the world championship against Williams. Schumacher was then driving for Ferrari.
Canadian driver Jacques Villeneuve was in the Williams when Schumacher turned into him in the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez.
This time it was Schumacher who was forced out of the race. As at Adelaide, Schumacher led by a single point and he was later stripped of his second place in the world championship when the FIA, the sport’s governing body, ruled the collision was his fault.
After his retirement from F1, Schumacher said if there were one thing he could change in a career that may never be equalled, it was turning in on Villeneuve in the Spanish race.
Schuey was always able to make his car seem wider during an attempted pass by another driver and those tactics are not treated so leniently in F1 now as they were in the German’s day.
That in itself gives an idea of the deliberation with which he drove into Villeneuve. Crash through or crash. It was more difficult to gauge his intention in the Hill incident because his car could have been beyond his control, as Schumacher said.
Few believed him.
The German ace won two world championships at Benneton and five at Ferrari before retiring and then returning to drive for Mercedes before stepping aside for Lewis Hamilton, although the all-conquering magic appeared to be gone.
What he achieved at Ferrari was remarkable. When he tested for the Prancing Horse he was seconds faster than Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger.
Schumacher had an extraordinary talent as well as a desperate determination. He surpassed the great Juan Manuel Fangio’s five championships. Sebastian Vettel, as ruthless and relentless a driver as Schumacher, has won four and leads in this year’s championship for Ferrari.
There is a similarity between Schumacher and Vettel that goes beyond sheer driving ability. It is that same desperate determination that saw Vettel put Mark Webber out of the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix by driving into him when he and the Australian were level on points in the race for the championship.
Author: Peter Coster
PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.